Sometimes I use a sermon to explore themes that trouble me, religious themes. Here is something I offered today, at Finchley Reform Synagogue:
How are we to read the Torah today? What is our relationship to it? What role does it play in our thinking about ourselves as Jews?
For 1800 years the texts of Torah were at the centre of Jewish life: they were seen as holy, inspired, having come to the Jewish people directly from Ha-Kadosh Baruch Hu, the ‘Holy One of Israel, Blessed be He’. Jewish lives were guided by the words of Torah, controlled by their teachings, regulated by the instructions they contained and the concentric circles of commentary upon them that radiated outwards, endlessly, through the generations, interpreting, expanding, amplifying the godly purposes inscribed in the original holy words. For 1800 years these texts we read every Shabbat morning were at the epicentre of Jewish consciousness – and Jewish lives were lived, as Franz Rosenzweig suggests, as enacted commentaries upon the Torah, that ever-beating heart of Judaism.
The teachings of the Torah pulsed through the daily, the hourly, lives of Jews, wherever they lived, from Asia to the Yemen, from Bialystock to Berlin to Baltimore, for Torah min-Hashamayim meant Torah that was divinely inspired - and therefore had a commanding presence at all times, in every era and in every place where Jews found themselves in their long wanderings across the world and through the generations.
But can we say the same today, for us? Even to ask the question brings in its wake its own answer: I don’t think we can say the same is true for us. Nor has it been true for most Jews for several generations now. Our relationship to the Torah (if indeed we have a relationship at all) has surely become, I would suggest, radically different – and has become so because of what we think of as modernity, those multiple ways of thinking that have transformed our consciousness over and again during the last two centuries. Secularism with its distinctive ways of describing and interpreting our everyday realities has taken hold in our hearts and minds, and affects everything we do and are. The ways of thinking about human relationships and history, psychology and language and law, the ways of thinking about our planet and its evolution, about nature and human nature, the centrality of scientific and critical modes of thinking and the place of reason and rationality in how we think about ourselves and our society – our mental world view now is irrevocably different from 200 years ago, let alone 2000 years ago. And this of course includes the ways we think about religion and so-called ‘holy’ texts.
And all this – and obviously I’m only offering here an almost cartoonishly abbreviated, shorthand version of this process of modernity – all this huge transformation in thinking has profound implications for those opening questions: ‘How are we to read the Torah today? What is our relationship to it? What role does it play in our thinking about ourselves as Jews?’
I’ve been prompted to pose these questions today for two reasons. The first is historical: next weekend is the 200th anniversary of the beginnings of what was, in 1810, a new, progressive approach to Judaism. Next Shabbat commemorates the first progressive Jewish Shabbat service. It was held in Seesen, Westphalia – in present-day Germany. There was an organ and a boys' choir, and texts in German as well as Hebrew. The service was led by Israel Jacobson, the so-called ‘father of Reform Judaism’.
But of course questions about Jews’ changing relationship to Torah had been around for decades before that: they’d surfaced in the previous century’s Enlightenment era and a century before that Baruch Spinoza in Holland was already offering a philosophical critique of contemporary views about God and Torah. So that first progressive service 200 years ago was a milestone – but within a larger unfolding challenge to traditional thinking. And whether we know it or not, in the midst of the multiple transformations in Jewish life that have happened since then, we are the inheritors of that impetus that started in Germany to look for new directions in Jewish life, congruent with the times and the thinking of the times.
And the second direction from which I am asking how we are supposed to relate to Torah today comes from having to wrestle directly with the kind of text we heard today. For example, what do we do with a sentence like ‘Adonai spoke to Moses saying...Tell the children of Israel: When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan you shall dispossess/uproot all the inhabitants of the land; you shall destroy all their images, and all the images of their images, and you shall destroy all their religious sites, and you will take possession of the land and settle in it...’ (Numbers 33:51-3).
When in March 2001 the Taliban dynamited the two great 6th century Buddhas of Bamyan in Afghanistan there was, justifiably, international outrage at the desecration and destruction of a religious site, and it was seen as evidence for the atavistic medievalism of their form of Islam. But as we see, that kind of religio-cultural destructiveness is not rooted in medievalism but in Biblical texts such as the ones we still read today from our Torah.
And here you will probably want to protest that this is a bit unfair of me. That we are not responsible for the Taliban’s interpretation of Islam; and that we are not of a mind-set that would read these holy texts of ours literally, as telling us what to do today; that we are part of a tradition that always read our texts through the eyes of commentators - who would read the texts figuratively, or allegorically, or symbolically. So that, for example, when we read – in several passages in the Torah, in Exodus and Leviticus and Deuteronomy - that we should take ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’, we understand this as the Talmudic rabbis understood it: that this principle is there to provide equitable financial compensation for an offended party, indeed that it restricts acts of retribution. Because in ancient times the punishment often far exceeded the crime, the Torah – says the rabbis – is not instructing us in retribution, but in mercy. It is asking us to transmute our natural aggression and wish for revenge into a passion of a different kind, a passion for justice.
So is this the approach we need to take when reading the Torah today – not to take it literally, but maybe symbolically or metaphorically or in some other way that goes against the grain of its plain meaning? So that when we read about dispossessing and uprooting inhabitants from the land, and acts of cultural desecration and religious contempt, are we supposed to interpret that as teaching the importance today of Jewish cultural distinctiveness, of taking pride in one’s own traditions and values, or the importance of uprooting alien ideas and values from one’s own Jewish world view? Or do we concentrate on thinking of it as a text to justify Zionism as a divine enterprise? I suppose if you were a certain kind of rabbi, or a certain kind of Jew, you might feel attracted to these kinds of interpretation. But even as I suggest these possibilities, I recognize how inadequate these kinds of interpretations are, how fraught with difficulties they are. That kind of interpretative approach towards a problematic text involves a reading against the grain of the text that’s going to leave some very nasty splinters of aggression in one’s soul, and possibly in other people’s lives.
Or maybe we moderns would prefer to see the text merely as a document that reflects its historical context, as a product of its own time and place in which life was nasty, brutish and short, and a tribe’s survival did require the utmost ruthlessness? Are we supposed to rationalize it like that? And in doing so insist that it in no way offers religious or spiritual guidance to us today – in Israel or the West Bank for example? But if we do that, what do we say to those who do want to read the texts more literally and less symbolically – that still want to settle and dispossess, and still despise others with the same vehemence as the God-figure portrayed here, still despise the other inhabitants of the land?
A new report out this week from the leading Israeli human rights group B’Tselem says that more than 42% of the West Bank is now under the control of Israeli settlers. Settlements take over private Palestinian land far beyond the settlements’ notional boundaries, in breach of an Israeli supreme court ruling that is blatantly ignored by those who will be reading these same texts today with, no doubt, a self-justifying smile on their faces. (I know that not all the settlers are religious, but I am making the point about how these texts still resonate today in powerful ways in certain parts of the Jewish world).
But to come back to us: can we still read these texts today in our progressive communities, in any non-literal, non-fundamentalist way, and feel content with our reading? Feel that we retain our integrity - and our humanity – by reading the texts psychologically or homiletically as I tried to do before? Or by contextualizing them, placing them in an ancient historical framework, and thereby de-fanging them of their poisonous and (let’s be honest) genocidal invective? Does that work for us?
How do we stay open to these texts – open in our hearts and minds? How can we stay open to hear the Holy One of Israel speaking still through these texts? That’s our challenge, our religious and spiritual challenge. This is what Judaism has always done, always tried to do, to stay faithful to a tradition of reading that says : through these texts, through these stories and narratives and laws, through the poetry and prose and legislation, through every sentence, every word, every letter, the divine Voice speaks to us if we have ears to hear and a soul attuned to eternity. Can we still do that, with texts like these?
I suppose we do have a choice.
We could just discard these texts, edit them out of our tradition, or out of our minds, and say: these are just human documents that betray the primitive mentality of their human authors, the limited moral and ethical imagination of their times, but we now have far outgrown these writers in moral and ethical imagination and the refinement of our sense of how to be human with each other - and particularly with those who are different to ‘us’. We can do that, turn our backs on all this uncomfortable invective and discard these texts as damaged goods and irrelevant to our lives.
But if we don’t want to do that, if we want to keep faith in some way with our history of engagement with Torah as containing inspiration and direction for our own lives, then we have to hold ourselves open, still, to these disquieting texts. Hold ourselves still and open.
And that might be a very uncomfortable, and a very unfashionable, thing to do. To stay open to listening in to the potential wisdom to be learnt and received from texts that on the surface strike us as utterly repellant. This is deeply unsettling – it means we have to dispossess ourselves of our prejudices, uproot our initial emotional responses. And it means we have to face something deeply paradoxical.
It is paradoxical to say on the one hand ‘These texts are hateful to me for what they seem to say and seem to imply, and hateful because there are those of my Jewish brothers and sisters who insist on reading them in ways that I find abhorrent; so yes, these texts seem to me truly noxious’ - to say that, and also to say ‘and I will still read them, and listen to them, listen in to them, await what they have to reveal to me, to us, in our days, await what the divine speaks through them, what the Holy One of Israel wishes to disclose now about land and possessiveness and images and otherness and uprooting and destructiveness ...’
To say both these things – 'these words are hateful to me and I need to keep on listening to them' – is, I would suggest, one of the central Jewish religious paradoxes of our times. But Jews have always loved paradox. And in wrestling in this way with these texts we remain true to the vision of old, the vision of Israel, Yisrael, the ‘one who struggles with and against and on behalf of the divine’. That is our job, our task, our destiny: the wrestling and the yielding and the resisting and the never-letting-go until the blessing arrives.
And then we limp away, carrying the woundedness within us.